PFOA is the most common chemical you’ve never heard of. Until now. Thanks to recent reports about its prevalence in the environment and its potential for causing health problems, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is quickly gaining notoriety. Think DDT version 2006.
A man-made chemical that has been in use for almost 40 years, PFOA is everywhere. Perhaps most famously, it’s the key ingredient in non-stick (Teflon, for example) cookware. But it’s also found in stain-resistant linings used on clothing and paper products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 95 percent of Americans have trace amounts of PFOA in their blood. Scientists aren’t sure how the chemicals are transported or how hazardous they are to humans.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said there is “suggestive evidence,” gleaned from animal studies, that PFOA may cause cancer. Now, however, a draft report by the Science Advisory Board (SAB), an independent scientific review panel the EPA often turns to for advice, has recommended that wording be changed. The SAB draft asks the EPA to classify PFOA as a “likely human carcinogen” and take steps to reduce human exposure. A final report has not been released.
The DuPont Denial
Just prior to the SAB report, the EPA asked chemical maker DuPont, the largest producer of PFOA, as well as six other chemical makers such as 3M, to voluntarily eliminate the chemical from its products by 2015. DuPont officials have agreed to the EPA’s request, but said that for now the company doesn’t have an adequate substitute for the chemical.
Meanwhile, DuPont is disputing the SAB findings. In a written statement, company officials said the report “does not adequately reflect human health data that show no health effects.” Dupont, however, does agree with the EPA’s earlier report that PFOA is a “suggestive” carcinogen.
Advocacy Group is Happy
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research organization that advocates for improved human and environmental health, has pushed for PFOA’s elimination for almost five years. The SAB recommendations, said EWG spokesperson Anne Singer, are a step in the right direction.
“PFOA has everything in common with other chemicals that historically have been banned,” Singer said. “It is highly persistent, highly toxic and highly bio-accumulative in people. And those are three red flags for any chemical. It has all the hallmarks of a chemical worthy of an all-out ban. We’re very happy with the new recommendations.”
Toss Your Teflon?
So, should you stop cooking with non-stick pans? “At present, there are no steps that the EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA because the sources of PFOA in the environment and the pathways by which people are exposed are not known,” the government agency’s website reports.
“Given the scientific uncertainties, the EPA has not yet made a determination as to whether PFOA poses an unreasonable risk to the public. At the present time, the EPA does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products that contain PFOA.”